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Published in Print: January 9, 2013, as Legal, Logistical Concerns Seen in Call to Arm Adults

Legal, Logistical Concerns Seen in Call to Arm Adults

Officer Rick Moore patrols Oakland Technical High School in California on Dec. 17. State and local policymakers nationwide are grappling with whether and how to increase armed security in and around schools, including calls for additional school police and for some adults to be allowed to carry weapons on school property.
Officer Rick Moore patrols Oakland Technical High School in California on Dec. 17. State and local policymakers nationwide are grappling with whether and how to increase armed security in and around schools, including calls for additional school police and for some adults to be allowed to carry weapons on school property.
—Noah Berger/AP

State laws, policies differ widely; safety issues raised

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Forty-two states and the District of Columbia prohibit even holders of concealed-weapon permits or licenses from bringing guns onto school grounds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, calls are coming in some states to let responsible adults carry weapons in or around schools.

In Arizona, state Attorney General Tom Horne—a former state schools superintendent—has proposed allowing one armed individual in each school. In the same state, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has said he will allow "posses" of private citizens to patrol the perimeters of schools (but not on school property) to deter gun violence, an approach he said he used successfully in shopping malls in the early 1990s.

In Oklahoma, a pair of lawmakers has said they plan to introduce legislation to allow school personnel to carry guns on school grounds. One of them, state Rep. Mark McCullough, a Republican, has also floated the idea that teachers could be made reserve law-enforcement officers with local police and sheriff's departments.

Another Republican, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, said Dec. 17—three days after the shootings at the Newtown, Conn., school—that permits to carry concealed weapons should be valid on school grounds.

Texas prohibits firearms on public and private school property and in school vehicles, unless the school board gives specific permission for them. Using that aspect of state law, the Harrold school district has crafted a school security plan in which some school employees carry concealed weapons.

But support for the concept of more armed adults in schools is hardly universal.

President Barack Obama told NBC News in an interview that aired Dec. 30 that he was skeptical about the idea of "putting more guns in school."

And Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, on Dec. 18 vetoed a measure opposed by teachers' unionsRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader and by gun-control advocates that would have allowed exemptions from gun bans in "no-carry zones,"Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader including schools and day-care centers.

No Single Approach

Measures to allow staff members to carry firearms to defend students and themselves could create safety and logistical problems for school authorities and law-enforcement officers, some experts say, and raise complicated legal questions.

"Especially with guns, there's just so much overlap with general penal codes and general laws in a state," said Lauren Heintz, a research analyst at the Denver-based NCSL. "[Such legislation] will pull in all citizens, and not just those schools."

The law can be complex when it comes to determining who is allowed to carry a weapon in school—and under just what circumstances.

Connecticut, for example, has relatively strict gun-control laws compared with other states. It has an assault-weapons ban, and in the area of permits, it is a "may issue" or "discretionary" state, in which the state may grant a person a permit to carry a concealed firearm but is not required to do so, according to the NCSL.

In 38 other states, applicants either are not required to demonstrate a need for such a permit, or authorities must grant a permit if the applicant meets all the relevant criteria.

Carrying guns on public and private school grounds or at school-sponsored activities in Connecticut is a felony, with a few exceptions

for those who have them for school-approved uses (such as a firearms-safety class), for security guards, and for a law-enforcement officer "in the performance of his official duties." A hunter may carry an unloaded weapon across public school grounds as well, with the school board's permission.

Still, under Connecticut law, a teacher could, in theory, legally bring a concealed weapon to school with the district's permission, a 2006 analysis found.

Soncia Coleman, an associate legislative analyst for the state, noted in the analysis that when the original law pertaining to guns at schools was passed in 1992, it allowed an exemption for those with locally or state-issued permits. That exemption was removed in 1998.

"While a teacher or staff member would be prohibited from bringing a gun to school without the district's permission, the statute appears to allow him to do so pursuant to an agreement with said district," Ms. Coleman wrote. "However, it is not clear from session transcripts that this result was contemplated by the legislature, and a cursory review of related board of education policies reveals that this practice would generally be prohibited by school districts."

She went on to note that the Stamford, Conn., school board, for example, prohibited school employees from bringing "any weapon or dangerous instrument onto school property or to any school-sponsored activities."

Exemptions and Restrictions

One exemption from the K-12 campus gun ban in many states, such as Georgia, is for those who are on school grounds and have licensed firearms in their vehicles, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a San Francisco-based organization that opposes guns in schools. The exception is typically designed to accommodate adults who are picking up or dropping off students at school.

But some states would not have to alter their laws if they wanted to increase the number of guns on school grounds.

New Hampshire, for example, has no law at all "prohibiting persons who are not pupils from possessing firearms in a school zone," according to the San Francisco group.

Even where states believe they have struck the right balance between gun owners' rights and school security concerns, the precise extent of the right to bear arms continues to spark court battles.

Last month, for example, gun-control advocates suffered a setback when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, struck down the ban on concealed weapons in Illinois—the only state, along with the District of Columbia, to have an outright ban—on the grounds that it violated the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

However, the 7th Circuit court in that Dec. 11 ruling also cited language related to schools in the landmark 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which held that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to bear arms. The majority opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia said that states could still restrict guns in "sensitive places" such as schools.

Cost, Safety Issues

The cost of providing each school in the United States with professional armed security, meanwhile, could be high.

Mike Griffith, an education finance consultant for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, estimated it would take 128,000 full-time officers—at a cost of $12.2 billion a year—to fulfill a call for armed police officers in every school made last month by Wayne R. LaPierre, the executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association.

At the same time, simply allowing teachers or other adults to carry concealed weapons isn't a cure-all for school security and could create further difficulties, professionals in the field say.

For school resource officers—by definition, police officers with firearms who work in schools—as well as for all others carrying guns on school grounds, training is the key element to ensuring safety, said Kevin Quinn, a spokesman for the National Association of School Resource Officers, based in Hoover, Ala.

For example, he said, while he as the officer on the scene would have only his handgun to challenge anyone bringing an assault weapon onto school grounds, he would still be more prepared to meet the imbalance in firepower than someone without a law-enforcement background.

"I have years and years of training in tactics in order to deal with that," he said.

If teachers or others were carrying weapons to protect themselves and students, Mr. Quinn said, a situation could get "dicey" very quickly, particularly for other law-enforcement officers responding to an incident. While those at the school might recognize a teacher defending students from an attacker, he said, outside police officers might not.

"We could be challenging the wrong person. We could be wasting time challenging a good guy with a gun, when in fact we could be looking for the suspect," Mr. Quinn said.

Vol. 32, Issue 15, Pages 16-17

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